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RLPOnBoatCropped_Smaller.jpgOn Wed 14 January 2015, the Museum welcomed a guest speaker to present a special science seminar. Richard Pyle of Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, spoke about:

 

...the number of species on planet Earth that remain unknown to science exceeds (perhaps vastly) the number of species that have so far been discovered, let alone formally documented... Within the global biodiversity library, we are at this point in human history like toddlers running through the halls of the Library of Congress, largely unaware of the true value of the information that surrounds us... Taxonomists are the librarians, developing new tools to build the card catalog for the Greatest Library on Earth... What we accomplish within the next twenty years will impact the quality of life for humans over the next twenty thousand years.

 

Richard is an ichthyologist exploring extreme deep reef habitats, a bioinformatician and an ICZN Commissioner, a SCUBA re-breather engineer and and a two-time, two-topic TED Speaker. Watch the film of Rich's fascinating talk in the Museum's Flett Theatre:

 

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In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.

 

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An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.


Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.

 

Zambia

 

Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


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The  landscape in Zambia.

 

Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.

 

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Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

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The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.


Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.

 

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An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.

 

Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.


Field techniques

 

During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.

 

The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!

 

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Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.

 

Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

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Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.


Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…


‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’


Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.


Back at the Museum


After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.

 

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A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.

 

From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.


Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.

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As part of the background research for our expedition to the Norwegian Fjords and prior to joining the research cruise, Mary and I paid a visit to the University Museum of Bergen. The aim was to investigate bryozoan specimens collected from deep water around the coastline of Norway during the recent MAREANO project surveys.

 

The Bergen museum was actually founded in 1825 - they moved to the current building in 1866, and it is divided into two departments. These encompass Natural History Collections and the Cultural History Collections. There are also public events and exhibitions. The museum is situated within the grounds of a former Botanical gardens.

 

Bergen Museum.jpgRenovations underway at the University Museum of Bergen.

 

The building is currently being renovated, so in order to view the holdings of the bryozoan material, we were hosted by curator Jon Anders Kongsrud, and taken to University of Bergen Marine Biological Station by the waterfront at Espeland. The lab is situated in a lovely bay, and it was great weather with sunshine and blue skies, paradise for a marine bryozoologist .


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Enjoying the sunshine at Espeland Marine Biological Station.

 

We spent an industrious morning at the microscopes, viewing the MAREANO material collected in 2009. Among the samples were specimens collected from deep water stations around 2,000m, and we were able to identify some interesting species.

 

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Identification under way in the lab at Espeland.


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    Samples from the MAREANO collection.


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A species of Bicellarina from the MAREANO collection.

 

This was an excellent opportunity to meet some of the staff and to enjoy the Norwegian hospitality. After lunch we were introduced to Emeritus Professor Brattegard, who has been compiling a checklist of the Norwegian bryozoan fauna, which he shared with us. His long experience in studying the distribution patterns of Norwegian marine life meant that he could also suggest some interesting locations for us to go and survey.

 

Following the visit, the last task of preparation for the day was to transport the consignment of sampling buckets from the marine station to the hotel in Bergen.

 

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Mary manouvreing our bryozoan sampling buckets.

 

Tomorrow we will be joining the diving vessel MV Halton at the Bryggen waterfront in Bergen, ready to load on board all the equipment and supplies needed for the survey. We will need a large taxi to transport all our dive gear and equipment from the hotel!

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This is the question I'm most frequently asked (at least at work). Does it have an answer? Not really. No organisms need a 'point' (there are no entrance exams in evolution), but wasps do impact on our lives in useful and surprising ways.

 

Read on to discover why wasps matter and find out more about some of the most wonderful species.

 

1) They are beautiful.

 

Camouflage, communication - especially communicating the fact that they might sting you - and being conspicuous in dark undergrowth are all reasons why so many wasps have striking colour patterns. Iridescent, metallic-looking colours have evolved many times. Black and yellow stripes are classic warnings to birds and mammals that they can sting, so best left alone.

 

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Ormyrus nitidulus - a common British parasitoid of gall wasps.

 

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Ophion obscuratus - nocturnal ichneumonid, common and widespread.

 

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Nest of Charterginus fulvus, a South American paper wasp.

 

2) They are useful.

 

Wasps are not just here to provide entertainment at picnics. They help us to control pests that would otherwise damage our gardens and food crops.

 

Vespids are a large family of wasps that include familiar nest-building species you might see flying around your garden. Wasp larvae are fed on flesh, usually of other insects, such as caterpillars and aphids. So, wasps can be useful around the garden by eating pests (the adults just need sugar, they become annoying when they're out for themselves, as the colony collapses late in the summer). But these predatory wasps, though they are the most familiar to us, are just the tip of the wasp iceberg. Together with ants, bees, sawflies and many families of parasitoid wasps, they comprise the order Hymenoptera.

 

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Vespula vulgaris - the vespid that everyone is most familiar with

 

There are hundreds of thousands of parasitoid species out there: these lay their eggs in or on other insects, which their larvae then eat alive. These parasitoid wasps are responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of insects, regulating populations, partly shaping the world around us by limiting numbers of vegetation-crunching caterpillars and the like. We harness this ability to find and parasitise particular insects by releasing some wasp species to control numbers of pest insects on crops: biological control. This saves us huge amounts of money.

 

3) They are interesting.

 

All wasps do something interesting. They attack other insects in sophisticated and often surprising ways. Every creature is, of course, potentially interesting (even beetles) but the intricate interactions of parasitoid wasps and their hosts is, you must admit, fascinating.

 

 

 

Cotesia glomerata larvae emerging from a large white (Pieris brassicae) caterpillar.

 

We know very little about the biology of the majority of parasitoid wasps, even in countries such as Britain, with a long and proud history of under-employed clergymen and country squires peering into bushes and sifting through soil for caterpillars. Here are two species from my garden, to illustrate the point.

 

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Helorus rufipes, a wasp quietly going about its business in British woodlands and gardens.


The first wasp is Helorus rufipes. You don't get much more obscure than this. It's one of three British species of the family Heloridae, a family found over much of the globe but not one of the hymenopteran success stories, with only a small number of species. They're not very big and they are not very flashy but they do live in British woodlands and gardens and are quietly going about their business, laying eggs in lacewing larvae and eating them from the inside. This specimen was on the wall by my back door as I left for work one morning. But you won't find Helorus in many field guides or many online illustrations. Just one of many obscure families of Hymenoptera that fill our landscape.

 

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What appears to be a new species of Netelia, an ichneumon wasp, found in my garden.

 

The second wasp is a species of Netelia, of the ridiculously successful family, Ichneumonidae. Ichneumonids abound, with over 2,300 species in Britain alone. Netelia is one of the more successful genera with a great many species found all over the world, including 25 species in Britain. This specimen was caught in the light trap that I use for catching moths in my garden, which is also a productive way of sampling nocturnal wasps.

 

For a while, I thought that this species was Netelia testacea, which is a name that you will often see online and in the literature, sometimes illustrated in field guides as one of the few ichneumonids apparently common and well known enough to be worth illustrating. There are many, many papers that reference the biology and distribution of Netelia testacea. Except that these are almost all wrong, and I was wrong.

 

I've checked out the identity of Netelia testacea and it's not what we thought. The well-known species usually illustrated as Netelia testacea is usually Netelia melanura and this species in the photograph, that I frequently catch in my garden, turns out not to have a name. So I need to describe a new species for one of the most common ichneumonids in my light trap, which is one reason these things are so interesting.

 

Further information

 

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Well, I am off to Peru again, this time with entomologist and blogger Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) to look for insects on Solanaceae in the north of Peru.

 

We plan to go north from Lima to Trujillo, then over the mountains to the Marañon River, then a sort of unplanned meander through valleys and over peaks. I’ve been on some of these roads before, but never to collect insects, so we are anticipating exciting things! From my previous experience these slopes are Solanaceae heaven – full of endemics and we hope to find some good things.

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Prime wild tomato habitat on the road to San Benito.

 

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Further up the road we might just see Browallia sandrae S.Leiva, Farruggia & Tepe - named after me by my good Solanaceae colleagues Segundo Leiva, Frank Farruggia and Eric Tepe; last time I saw it I didn't realise what this plant was, so I now want to pay a return visit!!

 

This work is a continuation of the field component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relative strand of the Natural Resources and Hazards Initiative at the Museum and with it we will further improve our method for collecting the insects that are resident, using or otherwise interacting with individual populations of nightshade species. Our targets are the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes, but we rarely pass a nightshade by, and there are lots where we intend to go.

 

But first I will be in Lima for about a week before Erica joins me – there are things that need sorting out from the last trip and people to see. There will be further herbarium work (every time we go to Peru more collections have been deposited in the national herbarium) and more visits to the International Potato Center (CIP) to talk about future project ideas. These human interactions are as important as the collecting – every scientist here at the Museum is usually doing a piece of scientific work while at the same time thinking about the next thing; it often seems we think several years in advance, I suppose that is good planning! Some ideas work, some don’t, but the process of mulling them over and talking to colleagues is a big part of what makes being the sort of scientist I am a real pleasure.

 

So I have my GPS, my plant press and my herbarium identification annotating things (glue and labels, terribly high tech). I have the permits, and will give a seminar at the Ministry about our work when we come back to Lima from the field. I have probably forgotten a lot of things, but that is what shops are for, and besides, shopping in Peru is a real adventure in itself when you shop for the things I need (like metres of plastic sheeting). So off I go...

 

Let’s see what transpires over the next month – what will we find? It’s bound to be fun…

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From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!

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Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!

 

As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…

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Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…


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A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.

 

Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.

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Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…


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The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.

 

We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb. 

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Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!

 

Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…

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The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.

 

About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.

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Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.


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We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!

 

Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).

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Cordillera de la Viuda -  this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.

 

This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.

 

Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!

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Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…

 

The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.

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The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.


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We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!


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Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…

 

The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…

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The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.

 

The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.

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The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...


Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.

 

I wish I were going with them...

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Having survived the public transport ride up to the village of Canta and joined the rest of the team, we set off bright and early to look for more Solanaceae and their critters. Since Mindy, Dan, Erica and Paul had gone down the valley the day before, we decided to go up to the town of Obrajillo – worth a teensy mention in Dan’s guidebook as “oozing with colonial charm”.

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Definitely a colonial village, but pretty run down at the heels – this Merc was up on posts and had bags of grain in the front seat. There must be action here though during the foggy, cold season in Lima (September-October time) – hip hop is being advertised in the door behind the car!

 

We drove up beyond the town on a small dirt track that suddenly became a non-road – no harm done, but a bit of pushing was involved! The sun was shining and the insects were out – perfect conditions. Also perfect for sunburn… the sun at 2,900 metres elevation is pretty intense, and without sunscreen we pallid Europeans burn fast!

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Mindy and Paul looking for plants behind a somewhat random-seeming monument to the battle fought on the 2nd of May… Not in Obrajillo of course, but somewhere far away (in Callao on the coast near Lima in 1866 to be exact).

 

Since it had rained early in the afternoon the day before we decided to walk up spotting targets, then come back down collecting. The entomologists got to try out all their methods…

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Erica sweeping with wild abandon in a patch of potato wild relatives…

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Dan and Erica peering into their nets to see what they caught on the Solanum basendopogon that was creeping through the shrub on the right of the path…

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Erica sussing out just where to start suctioning up insects from a Jaltomata species growing against some rocks by the trail – the aspirator is basically a small, gentle hoover that sucks up anything on the leaves into a cup with a filter of gauze in the bottom, pop the top on and then sort it out in the evening!

 

One of the species we found here was Solanum habrochaites – a wild tomato relative – that the team had also collected from last year. This will be great for looking at the geographical distribution of insect communities on the same species – will the locality or the host species be the most important determinant of the insect communities association with the plants? Only by collecting from the same species in different localities (ideally at the same time of year) will we be able to start teasing apart these patterns.

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Solanum habrochaites occurs from Ecuador to central Peru and is quite variable in elevation and habit. It is an important wild tomato relative and has been used in the past to introduce new variation in the cultivated tomato for fruit sugar content. The sticky hairs all over the plant have a distinctive smell and could also be useful for plant breeders for insect resistance (the white dot on the flower is a white fly!).

 

About lunchtime a group of local people assembled in the valley below for a barbeque and dance/sing-along – Andean flute music and dancing. It was pretty atmospheric…

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The men on the rock in brightly colored ponchos did a sort of hand-waving dance – it looked good fun!

 

Well – it began to rain… earlier than the day before – so we headed back. Insect collecting with wet nets is just not possible. I begged though, and we went back to a spot we had seen a tomato relative not yet collected in the morning – it wasn’t actually raining (my logic ran…).

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Mindy showing just how big some of these tomato wild relatives can get – this one is Solanum corneliomulleri, a species that occurs in central Peru at higher elevations that we had not yet sampled from – so I was glad we had tried! We had collected this species in 2012, but no insects were collected on that trip…

 

Paul and Mindy pressed these last specimens and then we headed back to the hotel to sort the day’s catch, write up the notes, check our localities on Google Earth and otherwise get the plants onto the drier.

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Paul and Mindy emerging from the mist with the press full of solanums.

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The kind people in the hotel let us use the restaurant to sort out insects – amazingly even while other guests were ordering dinner…  we definitely recommend the Hostal Santa Catarina in Canta for biological field work!

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We set up our trusty gas plant drier (repaired by Tiina and Maria after our slight fire incident last year) in an unused communal bathroom… it works just a well as ever!

 

Tomorrow it is up to the puna – to find the high elevation potato wild relatives, and for me, to see if I can find some more interesting Solanum endemics… We will have to start out early to avoid the rain… can’t wait!

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In the bad old days, biologists from places like the Museum would just go to a country, collect and then bring everything home. This was great for building our collections, but bad for the country involved. It didn’t help build up capacity in-country for biological inventory and understanding at all; many of the places the early explorers went were only just beginning to develop academic communities of their own. Things are different now though – and for the better.

IMG_7282_resized.jpgMy colleague Asunción Cano and his some of his students at the meeting of the Peruvian Botanical Society – academic life is certainly vibrant in Perú!

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity that was negotiated by the world’s governments in 1992 and subsequently ratified by most countries has meant, among other things, that permission to collect in countries not your own must be sought from the relevant authorities. This might seem like a bit of a pain – but what it does is gets you in contact with local scientists and tends to lead to some great collaborations! In Peru we have our research and collecting permits for both of our projects from the Dirección Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y de Rienda (Ministry of Agriculture and Water). The process is very straightforward; it involves a project plan, a list of people involved, and a promise to leave half the collected material in Peru. Sensible.

 

DNA permits - a different beast

 

For much of our work, however, we want to use DNA sequence data to look at evolutionary relationships for both the plants and the insects. This means we need a different and additional permit – a permit for use of genetic resources. All DNA has been identified as 'genetic resource' regardless of use. In a way this has created a huge problem for evolutionary biologists like us. Our use of DNA data has been equated with the plant samples kept in gene banks. So genetic resources permits can be notoriously difficult to negotiate and obtain.

 

We submitted our application of the DNA extraction from all Solanaceae and all insects associated with them in early December of last year, made some corrections based on observations from the people in the Ministry, and to my amazement and total surprise we were granted permission to extract DNA from specimens of Solanaceae and their associated insects we collect in Peru for evolutionary analysis! I signed a contract with the Ministry affirming each other’s rights and responsibilities in Lima, then headed for the mountains to join the team.

 

We really appreciate the efforts our colleagues at the Museo in Lima have made to help guide all these permissions through the system, and the efforts our colleagues at the Ministry have made to allow the genetic resources permit to be granted. I am really excited about the future collaborations we will have, and the new data and hypotheses we can generate. Doing all the permissions the right way has taken time, but I feel it has us all on a good solid, collaborative base for developing the research in the future.

 

Off into the field

 

The next day off I went to join the rest of the team – Erica, Mindy, Dan and Paul had gone to Canta the same day I had to stay in Lima to sign the genetic resources contract – so I followed by public transport, always exciting in Peru.

 

The car I got a seat in was old, bottomed out at every bump in the dirt road, and had a completely cracked windscreen. I might know why… the road from Lima to Canta was being repaired and widened in a number of places so there were lots of stops – at one of them several men were up the side of the hill pushing rocks down with sticks – no dynamite here, just manpower!

 

IMG_7312_resized.jpgI suspect the windscreen has taken a few knocks along the way … our driver and the one from the car in front discussing the delays.

 

IMG_7309_resized.jpgIf you squint you can see the tiny men on the slope – they are pushing the slope down with sticks, levering rocks out so the roll down the hill in clouds of dust…

 

The driver of our 'colectivo' got a bit impatient, and zoomed through – despite rocks skittering down the slope. Not great. But we made it to Canta, I found the team, whose day had been Solanum-filled and wonderful. I can’t wait to go out tomorrow!!

 

IMG_7318_resized.jpgErica (with Dan’s hands) sorting some of the day’s catch – it’s looking good!

 

 

Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on a research and collecting trip to Peru.

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Before leaving London I was given a shopping list of field items to obtain in Peru prior to the arrival of the rest of the team. This makes a lot of sense, as things like plastic sheeting, pots, Styrofoam ice coolboxes and string are a lot cheaper here than in the UK and we save on bulk as well. So I was on a mission…

 

First though, we had another morning in the herbarium – checking on potato distributions after our visit to CIP on Friday where the scientists shared potato distribution data with us, we needed to check to be sure there weren’t collections they needed lurking in the cupboards of the herbarium. And there were! Many of the herbarium specimens that represent unique collecting points were not in the data set – we will now share this back with the scientists at CIP and everyone wins!

 

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Mindy, Tiina and our colleague Reinhard Simon in front of the spectactular CIP logo.

 

While working away at the database the floor suddenly did a lurch, the cabinets rattled and Johanny, who works with us doing data entry, ran for the door. It was a small earth tremor – not even big enough to register on the US Geological Survey’s earthquake map (they only map those over 2.5 on the Richter scale), but the Peruvian authorities registered it as 4.0 on the scale and with an epicentre just N of Lima but causing no damage. We hadn’t even felt the much bigger event (5.7 on the Richter scale) earlier on in the week the epicentre was far to the south – the internet went off, so we reckon that was the cause! Peru is at the edge of the subducting Pacific plate, and so earthquakes and tremors are common occurrences – it is good to have these little ones, it lessens the probability of a major catastrophic event I guess. I will definitely be visiting the newly-refurbished volcanoes and earthquakes gallery back in South Kensington with a new appreciation!

 

It was open day at the museum and the staff all had rows of specimens on display and both students and staff members alike were out talking with gusto to the many members of the public who came for the day. It was sunny and nice and everyone was having a great time! Museums really depend on the public visiting and open days like this are so important for letting visitors catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

 

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The botany display...

 

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Here's the way to the reptiles and amphibians!!

 

Noontime came and a friend and colleague, Emilio Perales from the Agrarian University (near CIP), came to help me with the shopping. The Central Market in Lima is not the safest place to be as a foreign woman alone, anyway, shopping is better as a group activity! Off we went into the heart of colonial Lima...

 

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The central part of Lima still has many old colonial churches and buildings... this one is the Iglesia San Martin (I think)...

 

The market itself is not a building or an area along the street – it covers several city blocks and is composed of shops selling anything you can imagine… Specialism is highly developed and there are tiny shops selling only plastic containers, others selling only paper products, still others with only coolboxes and yet more with only plastic sheeting and rubber bands. The whole area heaves with people – Saturday afternoon might not have been the best time to do this particular task!

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Proper shopping involves going to several stalls and bargaining for the best deal for the best product – this is a highly interactive sport. Getting receipts for purchases can also be a challenge – seems strange to be asking for a receipt for something that cost two and half Peruvian soles (the equivalent of 50 pence) – but it is necessary to justify expenditure.

 

Finally, laden with two coolboxes, many metres of plastic sheeting, a large roll of fabric, several hundred plastic pots and a huge plastic storage box, we had a freshly squeezed orange juice in the fruit section of the inside market – my favourite part of any of these local markets. Beautiful…you just can’t beat it!

 

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Maize in Peru is called choclo and has huge grains - it is served boiled or roasted and is delicious!

 

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Native (the cracked open green ones in the right hand side are lucuma) and imported (pomegranates) fruits all side by side for sale in hundreds of competing stalls - it is grape season in coastal Peru and many varieties are grown...

 

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The duck aisle right down from the fruits...

 

Shopping done we caught a taxi back to the museum to put our haul ready for the field on Tuesday. It took us ten minutes to get into the tiny car; it was like a puzzle getting all that stuff (plus us!) into the small space. Everything got put away, and now there are just a few more tiny bits and pieces (like a mobile phone I can use in Peru!) to get before we go… we await the rest of the team with anticipation...

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The easy answer to that one is – lots!

 

Seriously though, this is a harder target to hit than one might think. As part of our project on Peruvian endemics, Tiina, Paul and I decided that a checklist of the species of Solanum in Peru would be something botanists here would find useful – so we set about generating this from the Solanaceae Source database. Sounds easy…

 

Solanum is one of only a handful of flowering plant genera with more than 1,000 accepted species, and applying the general rule of thumb that there are about 3 names for every accepted species (a result found by my colleagues at Kew Gardens in a paper in 2008) means we have a lot of names to look at! I have written about synonymy before, but just to recap –a species might have more than one name for various reasons:

 

  • communication in the early years of science was not so hot and botanists might not have known that the species had been described already
  • or so few specimens were available that botanists described the extremes of variation as different species and now with more collections we can see a continuous range of variation
  • or opinions can differ as to what constitutes a species!
  • or …

 

This doesn’t mean earlier botanists were wrong, it just means we need to reassess the evidence from time to time, especially as more collections are made in previously poorly collected areas.

 

This plethora of names means that without some sort of ordering and rationalization the day-to-day identification of plants for tasks such as environmental assessments or national park inventories can become inconsistent. Hence the checklist…

 

So now having generated a list from the database (and Maria Baden, our dapper driver from last year’s trip - having edited it and tidied it up!!) we are now checking the list against the entire national herbarium – species by species. It’s a big job.

 

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Besides checking, we are adding new data points to the database, especially for common species, so we can get accurate estimates of range size and distribution in-country - here is Tiina puzzling over the VPN connection as the day begins...

 

As we go, we find that some species that appear in the list are there due to misidentifications – like Solanum aturense, a name put on a couple of collections that are really the related Solanum leucopogon – and out they go. On the other hand, new records here mean that species are added to the list – like Solanum cajanumense, that for some reason just wasn’t in there.

 

Tiina began at Z and I began at A – yesterday we met in the middle at about Solanum multifidum. Done… a complete marathon of identification, databasing and comparing – but the list is now backed up by data from the national herbarium and we have re-identified and re-curated most of the Solanum collection in this, the Peruvian national herbarium. Now I just need to look at the unidentified specimens some more and then we can move on to the next phase of the work – more tidying up … It is almost ready for publication now.

 

So how many specimens are there? We’ll count and get back on that, but as we work here there are new Peruvian species being described by other workers – so it’s a moving target. One of my goals is to find specimens in the unidentified piles that correspond to these new ones so the holotype specimen (the gold standard) can be deposited in a Peruvian herbarium – this is one important way botanists from northern institutions can help our colleagues in South America prove the value of their collections to their government sponsors.

 

Marathon over for now, tomorrow is our day for visiting the folks at the Environment Ministry to discuss our permits and to see colleagues at CIP (International Potato Center) to discuss future work on crop wild relatives. Should be a good day…

2

The re-housing of the Museum’s hawkmoths collection, one of my curatorial responsibilities, has been the subject of the last couple of posts. I talked about the transferring of specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers, and of the amalgamation of the old Museum’s collections with newly acquired material, with particular reference to the collection of hawkmoths (Sphingidae).

 

I have also introduced some of the species from the Museum’s extended sphingid collection, consisting of around 289,000 specimens and, in this post, I would like to briefly tell of the history of the Museum's collection of hawkmoths. However, before I start delving into the past, I’d like to finish with the introduction of some of the species of hawkmoths I began in the previous post… so here are some other fascinating sphingids.

 

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Some hawkmoths have a short and stout body, transparent wings, a distinct pattern and behaviour that make them look like bees or wasps.

 

This is Cephonodes hylas, a daily flying moth, widely distributed in Asia where it is often found in urban parks and gardens attracted by Gardenia, one of the caterpillar's food plants. When the adult moth emerges from the pupa, the wings are entirely covered with greyish scales. These come off in a little cloud after the first flight.

 

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Another hymenoptera look alike is Hemaris fuciformis.

 

This little and pretty hawkmoth, with its plump body covered by yellowish and reddish hairs, and its transparent wings, looks very much like a bumble bee, and it flies rapidly like one too! This specie is widespread all over Europe eastward across northern Turkey, northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia, northern Amurskaya to Primorskiy Kray and Sakhalin Island. It has also been recorded from Tajikistan and northwest India.

 

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Sataspes infernalis is another daily flying hawkmoth that very convincingly mimics a carpenter bee.

 

Its wings are devoid of scales and are darker, more opaque and somehow iridescent compared to the previous two hawkmoths. This species is distributed in India, West China, Burma and Borneo.

 

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Eye-spots are a common feature on the wings of Lepidoptera and hawkmoths are no exception. This stunning hawkmoth is Compsulyx cochereaui, an endemic species of New Caledonia.

 

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Eye-spots are also found on the hind-wings of the species of hawkmoths belonging to the genus Smerinthus.

 

This genus includes 11 species and one of them is the eyed hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata). In the resting position the fore-wings cover the hind-wings with the eye spots, when the moth feels threatened, the fore-wings are suddenly pushed upward revealing the hind-wings decorated with intense blue and black 'eyes' on a pinkish and brown background.

 

The flashing of these false eye-spots may help in startling a potential predator giving the moth a chance to quickly fly away. The eyed hawkmoth is distributed across all of Europe (including the UK), through to Russia as far east as the Ob valley and to eastern Kazakhstan and the Altai. It has also been recorded in north and western China.

 

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Pseudandriasa mutata is a rather atypical sphingid

 

It doesn’t look particularly streamlined nor are its wings elongated like those of a typical hawkmoth. In fact when in 1855, Francis Walker - while studying specimens and describing new species from our Museum - came across a specimen of this hawkmoth, he recognized it as a new species but named it Lymantria mutata, thinking it belonged to the family of moths called Lymantriidae (Tussock moths).

 

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Hayesiana triopus is a lovely daily flying sphingid with translucent wings and a discontinuous pinkish-red belt and orange spots on a black abdomen.

 

The underside of the body, particularly of the thorax, abdomen and hind wings is reddish orange. This moth is a fast flyer but its rapid movements seem rather clumsy and, apparently, it's not particularly precise when aiming the proboscis into a flower. It is distributed in Nepal, northeastern India, southern China, and Thailand.

 

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Callionima inuus is certainly a very elegant hawkmoth thanks to the decorations on its forewings.

 

The scale pattern forms motifs which resembles a cover of cobwebs blended with small, dark and light brown wavy markings; there is also a patch of silver scales in the shape of a plump and twisted “Y”. The pattern is beautiful, but most of all indispensable, for perfectly disguising this moth in the environment where it lives. This species is well distributed in the entire Neotropical region, from Mexico to Argentina.

 

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Another master of disguise is Phylloxiphia oberthueri.

 

When in the resting position, hanging from a plant, this hawkmoth looks very convincingly like a bunch of dry leaves. This species is distributed through West Africa.

 

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Doesn’t Hypaedalea insignis look like the vehicle of a superhero character?

 

An innovative hawkmoth bat-car! But again, this pattern has not evolved to impress we humans; the amazing discontinuous and wavy lines and blotches, coloured with different tints of brown and grey, are all essential for making this hawkmoth hard to spot against the vegetation. This moth is distributed in West Africa.

 

And now, the history bit...

 

The Museum's collections are based on Sir Hans Sloane’s collection which was purchased by the British Museum in 1753. Amongst them were his entomological holdings, with around 5,500 specimens including Lepidoptera, and thus were the earliest Sphingidae housed in the Museum.

 

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A drawer with specimens of Lepidoptera from the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. The hawkmoths in this drawer (Smerinthus ocellata in the top left, Agrius convolvuli and Sphinx ligustri bottom left and right respectively) were collected more than 350 years ago and are amongst the oldest Lepidoptera specimens in our collections.

 

Afterwards, the earliest and most significant benefactors who presented Lepidoptera - and particularly Sphingidae - to the Museum were, Horsfield, the Honorable East India Company, and Museum appointees like Edward Doubleday.

 

Later 19th Century benefactors of major significance were Bates, Wallace, Stainton, Zeller, Bainbrigge-Fletcher, Hewitson, Leech and Godman and Salvin. And in the 20th Century the sphingids holdings of the Museum were to be enriched with the collections of Lord Walsingham, Swinhoe, Moore, Joicey, Levick, Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, Cockayne and Kettlewell, Inoue and others.

 

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Some of the most significant donors of Lepidoptera (and particularly of Sphingidae) to the Museum.

 

The date of acquisition, the number of specimens and some of the history behind each of these valuable collections of moths and butterflies is often well documented, but it is much more difficult to know the exact number of specimens of any particular family that came with any of them. However, we know that the majority of the hawkmoths - around 45,000 specimens - came to the Museum in 1939 when Lord Rothschild bequested approximately 2.5 million specimens of Lepidoptera.

 

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Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild was a keen naturalist who went on to amass one of the greatest collections of animals ever assembled by an individual. In 1939 around 2.5 million specimens of butterflies and moths from the Rothschild collection, were entrusted to the Museum in thousands of drawers. Two of these drawers, containing hawkmoths, are shown in the picture.

 

The Sphingidae collection, like the majority of the other Lepidoptera families, has since 1904 been housed in the Museum in 4 separated blocks:

 

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The Main Collection.

This is the reference collection and contains drawers with type specimens and representative series of any particular family, often of the oldest material. In the picture, one of the main collection drawers with the hawkmoth Callionima inuus.

 

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The Supplementary Collection.

 

It contains other specimens, belonging to any particular family, of identified material which arrived later and for which there was not space in the main collection. In the picture, one of the supplementary drawers with the hawkmoth Agrius convolvuli.

 

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The Accession Collection.

 

It contains unsorted and often unidentified material which was later added to the family. In the picture, one of the accession drawers with different species of hawkmoths from the original Rothschild Collection.

 

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The British & Irish Collection.

 

It contains specimens of the 20 species of Sphingidae occurring in the British Isles. In the picture, one of the British and Irish Collection drawers with the hawkmoth Daphnis nerii.

 

Only relatively recently we began to amalgamate all specimens from the main, supplementary and accession collections into one collection for each family. Each of the 5 curators in the Lepidoptera section is responsible, amongst other things, of the re-housing of one or more families of moths and butterflies.

 

With a collection of almost 9 million specimens and around 135 families of Lepidoptera to take into account the work to do can seem endless; it will certainly take a long time and a lot of effort before this is accomplished, but slowly and surely we are improving the care, storage and accessibility of our collections.

 

In August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public, the Museum was able to acquire one of the largest private collections of Sphingidae, the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

And it’s about this prodigious private Collection, containig a staggering total of around 230,000 specimens, the majority of which are sphingids, that I will be telling you in my next post. Make sure to come back then.


Thanks for reading.

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So, I have been back for almost a month and only now have had a chance to settle in. Field work is fantastic, but sometimes re-entry can be a bit of a challenge! But it is great to be back and in the collection again – lots of ideas from being out in the forest that need checking in the herbarium – I spent a good few days just re-identifying things and generally tidying up the Brazilian Solanum collections.

 

Just after I returned, an interview I did for the Global Plants project (where I am a member of the current Steering Committee) was posted on their website. I felt quite nostalgic for summer as it poured with rain in the London winter – it was HOT in New York City when we were filming!

 

 

The Global Plants project began as the African Plants Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose objective was to provide African botanists with access to images of type specimens of plants from Africa. The project expanded over the years (you can read the history on the Global Plants website) and with generous funding from the Mellon Foundation and logistical support from JSTOR has become one of the indispensable resources for botanists worldwide.

 

The Museum has been participating in the project since the early years, and our type specimens are scanned to become part of the Global Plants resource. When I began as a botanist in the 1980s, to see a type specimen you either had to borrow it (but they often weren’t available on loan for security reasons) or travel to many different collections to see the real things.

 

The importance of type specimens

 

Type specimens are critical for scientists like me – they are the specimens to which names are tied. They are usually not typical (one of those funny English words that gives the wrong impression), but instead are used to determine what name to apply to a particular species concept.

 

Imagine you have a stack of specimens – you sort them into piles, those are the species, then figure out into which pile each type specimen goes. Then, to figure out what species name each pile should be called by, the type specimen of the first published name takes priority, the rest are synonyms. So – if the types specimens for Solanum corumbense (described in 1895) and Solanum tumescens (described in 1986) fall in the same pile – Solanum corumbense is the correct name for the species and Solanum tumescens becomes a synonym.

 

To be able to compare type specimens online at the click of a button has truly changed the way in which we do our science – I cannot know imagine life without a resource like Global Plants!!  Thank you, Mellon Foundation... I can even check types in the field (so maybe next time I needn't come back at all!! - although I'd miss South Kensington...)

5

In my last post I described one of my curatorial tasks here at the Museum: the re-housing of our extensive collections of hawkmoths, made up of around 289,000 specimens.

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The re-housing of the Museum’s extensive collection of hawkmoths will keep me busy for the next few months (did I hear someone say years?)

 

In this post I would like you to meet the actual stars of this project, the hawkmoths themselves. Hawkmoths belong to the Lepidoptera family called Sphingidae, a relatively small family if compared with other families in the order Lepidoptera; so far there are 208 genera and 1,492 species described. Untitled-2.jpgHawkmoths are insects belonging to the family Sphingidae in the order Lepidoptera. 208 genera and 1492 species of hawkmoths have been described so far. Top row (L-R): Deilephila elpenor (Elephant hawkmoth), Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth), Elibia dolichus. Middle row (L-R): Cechenena sp., Hayesiana triopus, Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth). Bottom row (L-R): Mimas tiliae (Lime hawkmoth), Hyles sp., Hyles lineata (Striped hawkmoth), Akbesia davidi.

 

Species belonging to this family usually have falcate (curved and hooked) wings and their body is characteristically streamlined. The majority of species have a very swift and agile flight, and hover rapidly in front of flowers feeding on nectar with their tongue, which is often very long.

 

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The long tongue of many species of hawkmoths is mainly used to feed on nectar from flowers or occasionally, as in the case of this Argentinean Xylophanes schreiteri, on sweet breakfast leftovers! This photo was kindly provided by Tony Pittaway. Check Tony’s interesting websites, Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic and Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic, for more information and pictures of hawkmoths.

 

Hawkmoths caterpillars are large and have a curved horn on the rear end. When disturbed, they usually rear up with their anterior segments arched, in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian sphinx. These two larval features explain why these moths are also known with the common names of hornworms and sphinx-moths, while the common name hawkmoth refers to the rapid flight and falcate wing shape of the adult.

 

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Sphingid caterpillars have a horn of various shapes on the last abdominal segment. From top right clockwise: Cephonodes hylas, Dolbina inexacta, Eumorpha analis and Daphnis nerii (Oleander hawkmoth). All pictures by Tony Pittaway.

 

The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public; consequently these moths have become one of the most widely collected groups of insects.

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The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public.

 

Hawkmoths are generally well represented in every insect collection, large or small, and they are frequently reared from caterpillars, which has helped in providing a great deal of information on their biology and life history. Most species are also readily attracted to artificial light sources and this helps in surveying them when conducting biodiversity inventories of an area, which in turn has provided us with considerable insights into their distributional patterns and ranges.

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Many species of hawkmoths are attracted to artificial light sources.

 

The following pictures, taken from specimens in the Museum collections, show the ample variation that exists in size, shape, features and wing patterns among the different species in this family of moths.

 

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The stunningly emerald green Euchloron maegera. This species is commonly distributed in all Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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Oryba kadeni is another wonderfully green hawkmoth. It’s characterised by very large eyes and relatively short antennae. This species is found from Belize southward to Brazil.

 

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Some sphingids like dressing in pink, such as this lovely elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor). This species is relatively common and widely distributed. It occurs in all Europe (with the exception of northern Scandinavia, northern Scotland and parts of the Iberian Peninsula), eastward through temperate Russia to the Pacific coast, Korea & Japan. It is also found in China as far as the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong. It is a common species in the UK.

 

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Leucophlebia lineata is another pretty hawkmoth sporting a series of pink, yellow and white stripes on the forewings. This species is found from Pakistan through India and Sri Lanka, to eastern and southern China, down to South East Asia.

 

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Neococytius cluentius is one of the largest hawkmoths with a wingspan that can reach 17cm, and a long tongue of up to 22cm. It occurs from Mexico to Argentina, and has also been recorded as a stray in north Illinois and south Michigan.

 

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The record for the longest tongue belongs to Xanthopan morganii subsp. praedicta, a relatively large hawkmoth found in Madagascar famous for its long proboscis used for probing on flowers to feed on nectar. Thanks to its long proboscis, which can reach 25cm, this moth is well adapted for feeding from the flowers of star orchids, in which the nectar is kept at the bottom of a very long spur. While doing so the hawkmoth secures the pollination of the orchid.

 

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On the other hand, the adult of the hawkmoths in the subfamily Smerinthini, such as this Laothoe populi (the poplar hawkmoth), have extremely reduced mouthparts and are unable to feed. This moth is well distributed across Europe, as far as southern Turkey and eastward through Russia, and as far east as Irkutsk. It’s probably the most common hawkmoth in the UK where the adults fly between May and July.

 

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Sphingonaepiopsis gorgoniades with its 2-3 cm wing span is the smallest hawkmoth. It occurs in some countries in South-East Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It has also been recorded in parts of the Middle East.

 

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The hawkmoth Euryglottis aper reminds me a bit of one of those soft toy puppets. It is a very hairy species as it flies at elevation of up to 2800m in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

 

The Museum collection contains representive specimens of 207 genera and around 1,300 species of hawkmoths; a global coverage of 85%. Of the 289,000 specimens of Sphingidae held in the Museum collections, 113,000 are dry pinned and a further 176,000 are unset and still in their original envelopes. The  Museum's collection is certainly the largest and most complete collection of sphingid in the world.

 

In the next post I will be featuring more pictures and information on other species of hawkmoths and I will also give a little bit of history about the original hawkmoths collection of the Natural History Museum. I hope you'll be back then.

 

Thanks for reading and I take this opportunity to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

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A friendly convolvulus hawkmoth I met on a recent trip to Bulgaria. Isn't he cute?

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Congresso over, samba danced, party enjoyed – we all now head off for fields new. Lynn has gone back to Utah, but Leandro and I, along with Izabella Rodrigues, set off for São Paulo state to look for a putative new species. My colleague Jefferson Prado, with whom I worked on the new International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants published in 2012, and his wife Cinthia Kameyama have sorted out permits for collecting in the famous reserve in Paranapiacaba also known as Alto da Serra that is owned and managed by the Instituto de Botânica de São Paulo.

 

First though we needed to get to São Paulo. Famed for its traffic jams (executives allegedly go everywhere in helicopters to avoid them) we thought that leaving at 6am on Sunday would mean we got there before the rush into town after the weekend. Well, how wrong can you be. We hit the tailback about 2pm, about 75 kilometres outside of the city…and crawled the rest of the way.

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Cars, lorries and all sorts -  all crazily trying to get into São Paulo… Bumper to bumper for hours and hours. The amazing thing was that people were selling water and sweets along the central reservation of the highway, at incredible risk when the traffic actually did move, but I expect they did pretty good business, otherwise they would have been nuts to be there at all.

 

We did arrive in the end, getting lost a couple of times, but we got there. Our first day was spent in the herbarium at the Instituto – looking for new localities of the probable newbie and generally identifying plants. My trip here has been paid for by the Virtual Herbarium of Brazil partnership – and in exchange my job is to identify as many herbarium specimens as I can, thus helping with the quality of information available from the consortium.

 

We got a taxi from the hotel to the institute – no way was Leandro driving in that traffic any more than he had to! Our driver was chatty as can be, and took us to the wrong place at first. But rather than complain and blame us, he quite amazingly took us back to the hotel, set the meter to zero and we began again. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else on Earth? All the while keeping up a constant monologue on politics, life in São Paulo and things in general, including the World Cup (to be hosted by Brazil in 2014, with one of the main venues in São Paulo).

 

He dropped us at the entrance and we walked through the botanical gardens to the herbarium. It took us ages as the road was lined with solanums… Including the amazing, altogether wonderful Solanum castaneum – the ultimate Bob Marley plant, I swear this one has dreadlocks!

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We saw a huge black Bombus species buzz-pollinating the flowers – these are Leandro’s thesis topic, so he was pretty excited to see them in a place he hadn’t expected them to be so common!

 

So the herbarium. The institute in São Paulo is one of the larger and older herbaria in Brazil and so there were a lot of plants waiting for us to name…  between us Leandro and I identified some 500 specimens, including many of the new species. In 2008 I had tentatively identified three specimens of a plant from the mountains of coastal São Paulo as Solanum evonymoides – a species we had collected in Bahia, but with reservations. The amount of material in São Paulo convinced me that the plant is indeed completely different to S. evonymoides – what an idiot for not realising it earlier! But this is the beauty of visiting other collections, with little evidence to go on one cannot make a decision – the evidence is there in the collections, and they are so, so valuable – all of them, big and small alike.

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Lunch in the botanical garden with (L-R) Maria Candida Mamede (curator of the herbarium), Cinthia, Jefferson, me, Leandro and Izabella.


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Leandro counting some of our identifications for the final report from my trip… we basically just counted the piles and multiplied!

 

Bright and early we set off for Paranapiacaba – about an hour towards the coast in the Serra do Mar, the coastal range that rises to almost 2,000 metres above sea level between the city of São Paulo and the ocean. The town of Paranapiacaba was built by the British who came to construct the São Paulo railway, and the reserve managed by the institute was established in 1909, making it the oldest protected area in Brazil. The famous British botanical artist Margaret Mee spent time at the reserve, mostly painting bromeliads – she stayed in the lovely little house on the top of the hill that has housed scientific visitors for decades.

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The Casa de Naturalista is idyllic – I wished we didn’t have to push on to get to our next Solanum-hunting spot…

 

One the path up the hill we saw Solanaceae galore – Izabella’s genus Aureliana was common, there were lovely little peppers, and Solanum castaneum for Leandro. Izabella, in her quiet understated way, mentioned she saw a little green fruit high in the canopy…so up we looked, and there it was – the new species – an 8m tall tree, looking not at all like Solanum evonymoides! For sure, sure, sure something new and different – and extraordinarily, it was quite common. The reserve guards told us that when it was in bloom it was incredibly sweet-smelling and perfumed the whole forest – everyone had just thought it was a common species in the same group (the one I did my PhD thesis on, section Geminata) called Solanum pseudoquina, and not bothered to collect it up there in the canopy…

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Doesn’t look like much, but I was pretty excited! The branches have an odd (for Solanum) whorled structure, so we might just call it Solanum verticillatum – the leaves are leathery and shiny – it really is a pretty plant.


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Izabella studies the Brazilian almost-endemic genus Aureliana - of the 13 species, 12 occur only in Brazil! This one is the common but incredibly confusing Aureliana fasciculata - Bella had to do oa lot of statistical analyses to work out the limits of this species for her PhD thesis - she is now doing a post-doc studying the pollination biology of these discrete forest plants.


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The town of Paranapicacaba was the hub of the São Paulo railway, taking goods from inland to the port – the Serra do Mar is so steep that a cog railway had to take things down the last slope to the sea. This is now a touristic region for Paulistas…


We would have loved to stay for ages in the reserve, or in the little town of Paranapiacaba – but on we needed to go. Firstly to get to our next destination, and secondly to miss the São Paulo traffic out of town! So we delivered Cinthia to the institute, and set on our way… We were aiming to get to the Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo state border to be able to spend the whole day photographing plants in the national park of Itatiaia, where several really interesting endemics occur.

 

We made it to the town of Queluz for the night, only a few kilometres from the turnoff to the park. Unfortunately, we missed the turnoff the next morning and ended up driving about 40 kilometres extra and having to pay a toll twice (about £10) because there was no escape from the toll road! Very annoying – but we had gone far enough so we didn’t lose much time.

 

The Serra da Mantiqueira is an ancient mountain range that rises to more than 2,000 metres above sea level, and the area around the tri-state border is protected and highly forested. We did not have a permit for collection in the park, so we went with our cameras instead – Leandro and Izabella had collected here many times before, so we were there to get good pictures of these rare plants, not really to collect specimens.

 

The area is a paradise for Solanaceae – they were all around us in all their amazing variety … Here are a few of the stars of the day:

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A new species Leandro will name to honour Alexandre Curt Brade, one of the great botanists of Brazil in the early 20th century.


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The extraordinary Solanum gnaphalocarpon with densely hairy fruits – I thought this was only found in dry areas, but as is so often the case – I was wrong!


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Solanum itatiaiae – only known from high elevations in this region, growing near a bridge at about 2,000m.


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Solanum cassioides – disjunct from populations in southeastern Brazil, this species has a foothold here at high elevation where it gets really cold…


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The view across the mountains from the road was spectacular – this is very large piece of well-protected forest, and harbours many exciting plants!


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And finally, from lower down, the almost unbelievable Solanum lacerdae – the hairs on the calyx are like little stars on stalks, bizarre but for real!

 

In the afternoon the thunder and lightning began – and the car developed an odd squeal… so down we went, well satisfied with our day of photography. We planned to stop in the touristic town of Caxambu – with hot springs and thermal baths – before heading back to Belo Horizonte. Too bad I forgot my swimming costume! And this was a staid, turn-of-the-century family resort town, not a place for skinny dipping… So we just slept…

 

Next day – Belo Horizonte again – all set for a few days intensive work in the herbarium before heading home. I need to do so much – annotate and identify specimens, describe the new species, work out some real taxonomic problems with Leandro and João… will I manage it all? I hope so – the plane home looms…

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The 64th Brazilian National Botanical Congress ended today after five pretty amazing days of talks, posters and conversations. The theme of the congress was “botany, always alive” – a clever play on the universality and persistence of the science and the members of the plant family Eriocaulaceae – called sempre vivas (live-forevers) here in Brazil. The flowers and stems of Eriocaulaceae are sold as dry flowers; one stand at the congress venue was selling them made up into small trees and wonderfully elaborate arrangements. The flower stalks are also used as a thin, wiry straw to make jewellery – it looks like thin bronze wire… very beautiful.

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The congress was held in the downtown part of Belo Horizonte, in a venue called Minascentro – an old building, with a very modern interior.

 

The week was jam-packed full of wonderful talks – there was never a dull moment. My two talks were on the first day, so I got to relax and really enjoy the science for the rest of the week. What was mind-boggling to me was the sheer number of botanists attending the congress – more than 1000 people were registered, more than half of them Master’s degree or undergraduate students. This to me shows that botany and the study of plants is alive and well in Brazil, one of the mega-diverse countries of the world. This is quite right – this is where the study of plants should be thriving. And it is…..

 

Students are encouraged, if not required, to present posters, and posters there were! Every day there was a new poster session with hundreds of really interesting studies on show – in total nearly 2000 posters were displayed (1809 to be exact), giving the students a chance to show off their work and talk with the crowds who came to look at the work being done.

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For me this was a challenge – but my Portuguese improved greatly! Students were so kind about understanding my fractured attempts to ask questions about their work….. the best bit was everyone having a great time – the noise level was astounding!


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The opportunity to talk with students was great – many of them, like Luiza Fonseca de Paula here talking with Lynn about the phylogeny of a small group of really fascinating Brazilian solanums in which she has discovered a peculiar new species, have made some really interesting discoveries.


The range of topics covered spanned the gamut of organismal plant sciences – ecology, taxonomy, anatomy, conservation, floristics. My personal (highly personal and idiosyncratic) highlights were talks on the future of forests and on the Flora of Brazil. Each plenary talk was held in the main lecture hall – huge and almost always packed out. Lots of time was allowed for questions and discussion and the student participants really participated – even with talks given in English (translation services were provided).

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Paulo Motinho answering the many questions from the very interested audience.

 

Paulo Motinho of IPAM (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, or Amazon Environmental Research Institute) gave a thought-provoking talk about the future of Amazonia, looking at trends in deforestation and the increase in fire risk. He summarised some truly amazing experiments that involved covering hectares of the forest floor with plastic to see the effects of drought… headline answer, it really matters! The news that deforestation in the Amazon had increased and the newly published interactive map of world deforestation brought his talk into fresh relief.

 

But Brazil is more than “just” the Amazon – the habitat diversity here is extraordinary (as you can see in previous posts from this trip), part of what makes the flora here so diverse. Toby Pennington of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh gave another thought-provoking talk (in Portuguese, making it even more impressive) about the seasonally dry forests, often neglected in favour of the Amazon, but very diverse and evolutionarily very important for the generation of diversity in the tropics (Särkinen et al 2011). I was reminded of a talk I heard earlier this year at another conference where a speaker showed a map of agriculture and said that it was good that the area south of the Amazon basin was being used for widespread intensive agriculture because the Amazon was being “spared”. The area is the cerrado, an amazingly diverse and evolutionarily important dry grassland/tree habitat. There isn’t a one for one trade – all habitats hold unique elements and no one is more important than another. Nor can a country like Brazil put a fence around all natural habitats. The sheer diversity of forests here means the “agony of choice” is ever present.

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Caatinga is another example of a seasonally dry forest, a bit spiky and maybe not as romantic sounding as the Amazonian “jungle”, but important just the same – and highly understudied!

 

For me, the most exciting part of the week was discussions about the Flora of Brazil. A flora can be two different things – flora with a little f is usually used as a collective noun for the plant diversity of a country, while Flora with a big F refers to a publication describing and documenting the plant diversity of an entire country or region. The last Flora of Brazil was published in the nineteenth century by the great German botanist Carl von Martius, and remains a key reference work still. But knowledge of the diversity of the Brazilian flora has moved a long way since then!

 

A series of talks over one entire day of the Congresso set the Brazilian flora in context and laid out plans and tools for pulling the community together to make a 21st century Flora of Brazil. Inspiring.

 

Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (whose talk was given by her colleague Marli Morim from the Jardim Bôtanico do Rio de Janeiro as she couldn’t attend) set the flora in context. Brazil contains about 9% of the total plant diversity of the world, some 33,000 species, of these, 56% are endemic to Brazil and occur nowhere else. Wow.

 

Other talks in the symposium outlined

 

Though this seems like a daunting task, producing a compilation of all the plants (including fungi and bryophytes – not just flowering plants) of Brazil, the mood was so positive that this was really doable by 2020 – linking the effort to the targets set by the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Lots of arguments about how to do it and how to measure the impact of such work were had in satellite meetings in the evenings – but the dedication and positivity of this community was really inspiring. You know, even if only half of the Flora of Brazil is completed by 2020 a huge amount will have been achieved – but I would be willing to bet more is done.

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Vinicius Castro Souza leading a discussion of how a Flora of Brazil might be achieved, with others of the organizing committee looking on.

 

The congress was punctuated by the ascent of one of the local football teams, Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, to the top of Série A of the Brazilian league.

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The streets were full of people selling flags and banners – bought and hung out of car windows and draped around supporter’s shoulders.

 

The bars and restaurants all over town filled with excited supporters decked out in blue and white to watch the games on tv screens in the streets. So far, so normal – a bit like my neighbourhood in Highbury when Arsenal plays, although the noise here is on a different level altogether – car horns hooting, constant fireworks in the streets. When Cruzeiro won midweek to claim the league for the third time in history (with 4 games to go!) Belo Horizonte exploded – all night. The chap I bought a banner from was slightly mystified with my comment that 1966, the year Cruzeiro first won the league was the same year that England won the World Cup – it didn’t register, or perhaps it was my fractured Portuguese! Jeff Ollerton, a colleague for Northampton also here for the congress, likened the horn tooting to cicadas – it got to be background noise after a while, but the big booms were startling, especially during talks!

 

Another high point of the Congresso was its location – right across the street from the central market of Belo Horizonte. The pepper stalls were truly amazing – fresh and pickled peppers like I have never before seen. I could have spent days wandering through the stalls and small shops – everything and anything was for sale from brooms and kitchen pots, to herbal medicines, to pets.

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In this Aladdin’s cave peppers preserved in oil and in cachaça – all sorts, all sizes, all colours – were for sale.


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Each variety in this shop (called Paraiso da Pimenta – pepper paradise!) was rated for spiciness.


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Cachaça, a spirit distilled from fresh sugarcane juice and a key ingredient of the famous cocktail caipirinha, is a speciality of Minas Gerais – and the sheer variety of types was amazing. Just like whiskey it is cured in wooden barrels, with age and method important for achieving the very different tastes – tasting was tempting, but there were talks to go to in the afternoon!

 

The congress dinner involved great conversation and samba music – Brazil really knows how to throw a party. João Renato Stehmann, the president of the congress, summed up the event in numbers

  • 1461 botanists registered
  • 1809 posters
  • 156 speakers
  • 11 keynote lectures
  • 20 training courses…..

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My colleague from the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais João Renato Stehmann did an incredible job begin the president of this event while all the while being cheerful and a great colleague – he had even been in the field with us a few days before the event began! He deserves his halo…


All in all an inspiring week of botany in a country whose botanical community is vibrant, young and who are all really going places. This week has reminded me of why I study plants, and how lucky I am to be doing so.

 

I’ll miss walking from my hotel past the beautiful architecture of Belo Horizonte – but the field beckons again.

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This apartment block on the Praça da Liberdade was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, one of the key figures in modernism and the designer of many buildings in Belo Horizonte (most notably in Pampulha, where I had seen the capybaras early on in my stay).

 

A new species from the state of São Paulo and the enigmatic Solanum enantiophyllanthum are calling to us now, and tomorrow we set off to the south for a few days in the forest and in the really important herbarium of the Instituto de Bôtanica de São Paulo, where I am sure treasures await…. I’m glad I don’t have to leave Brazil quite yet!